A River to Wash the Pain

I feel like I need to get this off of my chest: I lacked courage all along. Just now I asked myself “why don’t I feel like writing even though I know I want to be an author?” yet another instance in scores of times. This time I answered myself honestly: “because I don’t want to feel how far from excellent, perfect, and totally confident I am at that art.” I know that I need to go through an awkward, even repulsive exploratory stage and I do fear that time will soon be biting my heels, since I could have chanced writing garbage in my teens and twenties rather than waiting for a Light from Heaven to make the task easy. I did not suffer from lack of encouragement. I suffered from always finding some cramp or another in my life to rob me of extra energy, and therefore provide me with endless excuses, distractions, and even responsibilities. The final category is most insidious because those things are easily mistaken for things I ‘should’ be doing. All the while, I’ve often kicked myself both for not reading enough and not writing enough, for not reviewing what I’ve already done enough and for not doing new things enough. I’ve been like an overly strict parent to myself.

Not so with music. My passion burned hot at a tender age, then slackened under the corrosive influence of my teenage days. At only seventeen or eighteen I had to shoulder the heartbreak of not being good enough for the two schools of music I auditioned for– yes, I only auditioned at two schools and expected life to hand me a success. I failed in auditions and excelled at application essays. Dr. John T. Madden, then director of athletic bands, urged me to continue at Michigan State University… as an English major because I wrote eloquently. Yet when I spent a month away from the trumpet, I swear to you that an alcove under a bridge enticed my sixth sense. I knew its acoustics would be exquisite; I went beneath the bridge to nurse the musician in me who would not die. In Creative Writing classes I did well but was plagued by the need for deadlines, sometimes even for whiskey, to get me over my speed-bumps. Meanwhile, I found even more nooks in which to keep my embouchure dredged, toned, and ready in case I miraculously returned to music as a career.

Reality eventually hit me hard. After my undergraduate days, my writing became inconsistent — as it is to this day. My personal life collapsed, which is an inevitability in life. Something remarkable happened: I gave myself permission to be the shitty musician who plays in a riverside park every day. Again, some space was calling to the musician in me. This time, I gave myself wholly to the notion that I had no future — I was only playing to be playing. Fully present with the instrument, I could be absent to the rest of my failings. Despite or even because of having less talent and promise as a musician than as a writer, I became a musician in the truest sense: I’d rather die than not play, I’d rather not die so I could keep playing. The voice of the inner musician saved me at age 24 and then again just a few weeks ago– I play at a blues jam. The funniest part is that I am a better musician after seven years. I knew it was possible but I could not set my sights on something that took so long. I had to close my eyes to the future because I lacked that kind of patience… yet the patience to be imperfect on my instrument, in the present moment, was something that I gained automatically.

I never stopped believing in myself, neither as a writer nor a musician. As a musician, I stopped worrying about myself as much. The black dots and lines of classical training went away and I relied wholly on my ears, probing for sounds, and getting better at improvising… rehearsing the feeling of getting lost and finding my way in scales, lately in blues chord progressions or attempted variants of familiar tunes. There were no more ‘mistakes’, as if I were performing for invisible audiences, as whatever I played would go forward and backward in imagined time like tides rising and falling– trying this combination of notes, then another, then changing the inflection again…

…it’s easy to forget how difficult it used to be. Those first few weeks by the river, with a broken heart, hearing my mistakes on trumpet was still painful. My resolution was to feel the pain in the presence of the river and my music, feel the pain of my imperfections on trumpet along with the rest of my decaying life. Practice makes happy, as music students sometimes say, and I gave myself the gift of a facet of life that I could improve upon. Moreover, I am so much an audiophile that I eventually became my own supporter; who else but me can play me what I am feeling? I can play you all what I am feeling without feeling as vulnerable, since my faults are transliterated in music; listeners are free to interpret.

Here, in ink, I am still my own biggest critic and I fear my words are less elastic. Glancing at my guitar, the one I can’t actually play, I am reminded of how much striving goes into art. Terms like “process-oriented” versus “product-oriented” are missing the crucial dialectics of art. Is the art a module to add on top of yourself, to try to stretch your outline bigger in this world, or is it an emulsifier — something you use to blur that outline and transform?



An Open Letter about recent Palestine-conflicts

Mr. Ms. [Respectable-Person],

I know you are on a journey with the Palestinian question — and I have known. It’s not an easy journey. My journey has been trying to develop the maturity to be helpful on that journey. It’s a process that I have not finished. I know it: I only, just now, saw that my primary emotion has been outrage. The outrage is justified — but my primary emotion? It should be compassion, not anger. So, I admit that I was living in the former emotion. I don’t want to cause you distress but sometimes we feel bothered during our journey when our frameworks are challenged. You even anticipated how I might challenge you — that says something. I am going to do my best to challenge your framework in a different way.

I am and have been a pacifist. I shy away from having to reiterate that I condemn rockets at much as bombs because I feel like I should not have to do that. The solution to this conflict has never been in bombs or rockets — that would be easier. No, the solution is in laws and in boycott campaigns: in less glorious channels. That’s the point I am going to make today:

The air of Hamas legitimacy is an obvious mismatch with the terrorist image. That’s because terrorism is not an appropriate label: they are militants fighting on a particular territory. I am pacifist so I don’t believe in militarism as a long-term strategy — I also don’t believe it solves problems for Israel. However, I think we can draw a distinction between Hamas and Israel: Israel is supposed to be part of the United Nations whereas Hamas is a faction whose popularity hinges on resisting Israel in violent ways. If there were a legal channel to challenge occupation in Gaza, rather than a suffocating blockade, then Hamas would be what they are in the West Bank: a second or third party behind PLO member parties. I hold Israel responsible not just for escalating but for creating an environment of desperation via the blockade and then, at their leisure, escalating more. We hold children and adults to different standards about using their fists: when an adult uses force, that’s considered assault and it’s a criminal charge.

The power difference is also in-line with that analogy. I can feel compassion for Israeli parents but their fear is not because of actual Hamas capabilities but because of their supposed capabilities, as presented by Israeli and Western media. Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense-system is more than a match for rockets, according to their own leaders’ boasting. Those rockets are little better than fireworks and they killed 5 during the entire eight-day conflict. God help those families. Still, the death-toll on Israel’s account (just from those eight days) has climbed over 150 — and reports indicate that it inches upward even after the cease-fire. Hamas is complaining to Egypt rather than sending rockets because they already declared their petty ‘victory’. If I did not berate Hamas it is because they lack real control and I have no financial stake in their killings. US aide dollars go to Israel so I feel a sense of collective responsibility for those killings. Demonstrators in the West Bank who never raised arms have also been killed, imprisoned without warrants, and generally abused for the duration of my stay. Hamas is certainly not GOOD for Palestine’s future… but it would be a distraction from the real issue to keep-up the sense of false balance. It’s not a matter of guilt but of responsibility: the powerful party must be held more accountable. I will not waste breath on Hamas, in praise or condemnation.

I believe Hamas was put in a tactical position where they could be expected to use violence. I say with some sadness that they made their only rational move. The ultimate solution is not by rockets nor by stopping the rockets. Rockets have no part in the solution, by their presence of absence; it’s a matter of money-trails and legal battles. The best way to under-cut both the Likud (Israeli party) and Hamas is to support the PLO’s statehood strategies in potent ways. The Palestinian Authority government, despite all the criticisms aimed at them for being ‘collaborators’, have defied Israel by applying for Observer State status (similar to the Vatican), getting nay-votes from only nine countries — sadly, the US and Canada are among the pariahs. Forty-five nations abstained, which was the politically ‘correct’ thing to do… and well over 100 voted in favor of upgrading Palestine’s status. I want the PLO to do exactly what some countries in Europe do NOT want them to do: pursue a successful case against Israel in the International Criminal Court and gain some restitution for the Palestinian people. It will be an unpopular move in Israel… but I don’t think Israelis realize what peril they are really in, right now. They are losing legitimacy quickly. The legal wound might seem terrible, at first, but if that restitution were significant enough it would under-cut Hamas and simultaneously collapse Likud’s coalition.

Where we fail to lower the gavel, someone else raises a gun.

But to answer your challenge: the Palestinian to Israeli death-tolls compare as 30:1. If I failed to meet that ratio, then I am guilty. Did I fail to speak a sentence against Hamas for every thirty I spoke against Israel? It could be. I recognize that I am sympathetic with Palestinian resistance. It may very well be. For the record, I never want Hamas to gain permanent control of any part of Palestine. Were Palestine united and free, I doubt they could; fundamentalism grows under pressure and fades when exposed to the wonders of life. So, I say what I believe will move us closer to ending the occupation. I try not to hold Americans personally responsible but we are collectively responsible for the misused aide, for the vetoes at the UN, for putting muscle behind an apartheid government, and for allowing delusions to abound. Look at the UN vote: isn’t there something that we grew up not knowing?

–[Daniel Xavier]